Lost on an island in Laos with elephants

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Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaburi, a little island where elephants live in peace.

The first reason I went to Laos was this place. I knew of the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is now very famous. There they have many more elephants than the ECC. However France and Laos share history together and I was drawn to that place. My instinct wasn’t wrong, that place was fantastic in many ways.

First things first, if you want to see elephants in Asia: do not ride them, there are sanctuaries.

This place is the only one actually buying elephants to save them from the logging industry in Laos. Logging is coming to an end, since the government decided to intervene and save its forests. Therefore many mahouts (mahout is the Indian term for a person who cares for an elephant) are selling their elephants to Chinese businessmen, because they can’t afford to keep them. China is buying a lot of land in poorer Asian countries and they invest in tourist attractions such as parks that allow you to touch and ride elephants. The main problems with riding elephants are the wooden chairs used on their backs that are painful and unadapted (as well as unnecessary in my humble opinion, apart from the mahout, nobody should ride an elephant, it’s unnatural), but also the days they spend working.

The biologist working at the ECC, Annabelle, explained very clearly that elephants who are to work in tourist attraction parks have to walk the same path everyday for hours, which is exhausting and lacks any kind of stimulation for the elephants. Do not underestimate elephants they are complex animals with social relations, they show emotions, which are very similar to ours, they even grieve their lost ones, just like us.
Hence an elephant walking all day, carrying tourists, sometimes crossing the pools at the waterfalls near Luang Prabang, will end up depressed, showing signs of intense stress, and probably end up worn out and attacked by fungus coming from the water.

There are mahouts who care for their elephant. Most of them won’t want to spend the money on veterinarians to heal them when they are injured, though. Another issue is the space and specifical food an elephant requires. Elephants in Asia live in the forest and have all the food they need provided for them. Captive elephants often eat sugar cane and unadapted food, which will make them drop weight or have diarrhea which can kill them. There might be a few hundreds wild elephants remaining in Laos, though it is hard to tell. Laos used to be the land of the million elephants. Of course with the loss of their territory the name has no use now. The numbers have dramatically dropped and it’s a matter of survival for the species to help them.

The ECC has a breeding programm. They rent a male to mate with the females, which is extremely expensive. If they’re lucky a baby will be born after 22 months. The elephant gestation is the longest of all mammals. There were two babies at the center, while I was there.

We remained on the other side of the lake in order to leave them alone. I appreciate that interactions with the elephants were very limited as they are peaceful creatures.

Actually my favourite part was on the next day when we hiked up in the forest to the observation towers. The elephants wore necklaces, a bit like cows have bells in the Alps sometimes so you will hear them. Elephants are very smart and can hide, so it’s a way for the mahouts to come and get them when it’s time to go to the river and bathe/drink. SO there we were for an hour observing them do their thing, like break a tree with their bum to get the leaves. Elephants are absolutely fascinating, I can’t even begin to describe how much I admire those gentle giants.

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The eldest of all the females, enjoying the forest, with her cute butt!

BATH TIME was all about observing them have fun, elephants love bathing! They cannot sweat (like pigs) so they use soil and mud to cool down and protect themselves from insects and the sun. SO SMART I tell ya! Water however is fun for them. At the ECC they can enjoy some enrichment. In the water they had a floating toy containing bananas and they had to use their trunks to grab them. One of them took the whole thing and swam away. LOVED IT!

Now let me tell you a little something about that gorgeous place. They take you there by boat, you are basically lost on an island with elephants, how can you not love that? You get a beautiful hut and mine had a balcony with a view on the lake, the sunset was glorious.

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Chilling in my hammock

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The food was locally grown, amazing, they have Vegetarian options and all travellers shared meals with volunteers and it was so nice. We got to talk with Josef Coremans who is from Belgium and is in charge of communication, with Annabelle Lopez Perez who is from Spain and is the biologist. She is a delight, she knows everything about elephants, about the mahouts, about the situation in Laos, she answered my countless questions, she is obviously passionate and it’s just wonderful to meet people like her. On my last day we got to see her draw some blood on a female elephant for the breeding program. It was fascinating and she was so gentle. There is a hospital for the elephants and the guide explains everything about the elephants’s health and life. I loved it. We also got good weather so I cannot complain. I honestly spent my best night in Laos there, the huts are so peaceful, everything is planned for you to feel comfortable, it was like a 5 star hotel. At night the sky was starry, I was over the moon.

The things I loved the most about them: their feet! I mean…what the hell, how can a foot be so damn cute! Their eyes, golden or kind of orange, believe me there is so much wisdom in those eyes. There is a whole universe we will never even start to understand in those eyes. The way they crunch on sugar cane and how they reach out to you with their trunk to find “treats” as in bananas and the sugar cane. They’re a bit like my cat in a way. It’s such a wonderful experience and your money goes to save them. The center pays to own them and pays their mahouts so they will live and the center! It costs so much money, which is why it isn’t free to volunteer there. It is totally understandable, elephants need a lot of care.

https://www.elephantconservationcenter.com/fr/

This is the link to their website, there are different programs, different prices. They take amazing care of you, don’t miss the chance!

They have Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/elephantconservationlaos/

https://www.generosity.com/animal-pet-fundraising/help-injured-boua-banh-make-love-not-logs currently they are raising funds to buy the male they rent for the breeding program, he got injured while logging and his back leg is broken. He feels fine, he can reproduce, but his life would be much easier at the center, so if you can spare some dollars.

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Here he is, Boua Banh, majestic creature

Thank you for reading, if you have any questions I am happy to help!

Julia

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